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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Tess (1979)

"What is this strange temptation misery holds for you?"
- Alec d"Urberville (Leigh Lawson)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: September 26, 2004

Stars: Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson
Other Stars: John Collin, Rosemary Martin, Carolyn Pickles, Richard Pearson, David Markham, Pascale de Boysson
Director: Roman Polanski

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: PG for (thematic material, brief nudity, rape)
Run Time: 02h:52m:17s
Release Date: September 28, 2004
UPC: 043396017078
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ AD+B B+

DVD Review

Tess of the d'Urbervilles was the most successful of Thomas Hardy's social dramas. Perhaps because they're so uniformly depressing, they've seldom been tackled as subject matter for popular cinema. But leave it to Roman Polanski to buck the trend of the crowd, and buck it he did in this loving recreation of Victorian England, set in Hardy's fictional Wessex.

Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski, in her first major starring role) is sent to live with the d'Urbervilles after her impoverished family disastrously learns that they are of that once-noble house. However, as it turns out the present d'Urbervilles are really the Stokes family and have only bought the title. Tess is put to work on the poultry farm, since the holders of the name are unimpressed with her heritage. But her beauty draws the ne'er-do-well son of the family, Alec (Leigh Lawson), who "forcibly seduces" Tess. Abandoned to bear a child, who soon dies, Tess eventually finds love and marriage with a parson's son, Angel Clare (Peter Firth). But she cannot resist the temptation to confess her sordid past, and matters rapidly take a turn for the tragic.

The epic length of the film is well-suited to Hardy's narrative. The development of the character and the story requires a languid pacing, especially in the critical first hour that sets up the situation for Tess and makes clear the double standards and prejudices that will eventually come to bear upon her. The picture is beautifully shot in principal by Geoffrey Unsworth (who died during filming), with warmth and gorgeous imagery that contrasts with the often-muck-covered and back-breaking labor that the spurned Tess is forced into. The red dress that Tess finally dons ina symbolic gesture comes as a bit of a visual shock after the somewhat color-free drama that has gone before. Philippe Sarde's score is suitably heart-breaking for the emotionally-charged story.

The then-seventeen Kinski is at her most waifish here, seemingly all eyes and lips. Even though I don't personally find her attractive, she has an undeniable presence before the camera that makes the fascination of both Alec and Angel quite understandable. Firth's Angel Clare has a nebbishy sensitivity that conflicts with his emboldened pride; even though he confesses an earlier dalliance, he is shocked and horrified that the innocent mental construct of Tess might have had such a skeleton in her own closet. Alec d'Urberville as portrayed here is a bit more sympathetic than he comes off in the novel, not only willing to use Tess but in some respects deeply caring for her. This helps shortcut for film what might not have played as well had it been as written as in Hardy's novel.

Hardy certainly had an almost cinematic eye for setpieces, placing his memorable finale at nothing less than Stonehenge, reflecting a primitivist urge and desire to cast off the Victorian way of life and return to more reasonable pagan ways. The film, which incidentally revived Polanski's career after the undeservedly disastrous reception of The Tenant, makes for a strong argument against moral superiority; its modern sensibility plays well today though we would be well-advised to avoid adopting a similarly superior tone to the Victorians.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Tragically, Columbia tries to do far too much with a single DVD. A three-hour film full of mist and dust and fog should fill an entire RSDL disc by itself, but they have here chosen to also include 70 minutes of documentaries plus a set of unrelated trailers to add insult to injury. Unsurprisingly, the film proper is a mess of compression artifacts and artificial sharpening. The whole has a very digital appearance, especially in the outdoor, brightly lit scenes. More intimate interiors look quite a lot better. The film hasn't been cleaned up noticeably, with regular nicks and speckles throughout. Very disappointing. On the positive side the restrained color scheme is reproduced well and black levels are acceptable.

Image Transfer Grade: D+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Surround English track generally sounds pretty good, although there is moderate hiss that is noticeable when the score isn't playing. The soundstage is generally narrow, though the surrounds really kick into action in a few sequences, such as a segment where a steam engine is operating to cut wheat in a field. That makes an impression in an otherwise quiet and contemplative film.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Sense and Sensibility, The Remains of the Day, Little Women, Persuasion
3 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 02h:04m:41s

Extras Review: There are three substantial documentaries included on the disc. The first, Tess from Novel to Screen (28m:39s) concentrates on the writing of the film and the casting, with present-day interview segments with Polanski, Kinski, and Lawson. Filming Tess (26m:10s), unsurprisingly, is devoted to the making of the picture, again with the same interviewees. The third documentary Tess: The Experience (19m:38s) continues the story with the same interviewees. The whole really flows together as one humungous documentary, and appropriately enough there is a Play All button, which is always welcome. Although there is no trailer for the feature itself, there are four other trailers connected only through being literary adaptations. Not a wise move for a transfer so starved for bit room.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Polanski's sprawling but highly personal period epic finally comes to DVD, but alas it's crammed onto a single disc with far too much additional material for healthy compression. The extras are very good but Columbia really should have sprung for the extra 50 cents for a second disc.


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